Development

When Marshall Park goes away, where will Charlotte protesters gather?

About 150 teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District attended a 1996 rally for higher teacher pay.
About 150 teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District attended a 1996 rally for higher teacher pay.

When hundreds of activists gathered Monday to protest immigration policy, they went to the same place that’s drawn people wanting to air their views near uptown’s government center for more than four decades: Marshall Park.

Since the park opened in 1973 at Third and McDowell streets, Marshall Park has drawn activists of all stripes, from Tea Party rallies to the Occupy Charlotte and Occupy the Democratic National Convention camp, where people spent weeks living. Teachers have protested for more pay in Marshall Park and activists have gathered there to decry police shootings.

Despite the lack of activity in Second Ward’s sterile government district – there are often more ducks and geese than people in Marshall Park – it’s become Charlotte’s go-to protest spot.

“It’s been an important spot for activism all those years,” said Michael Zytkow, who was a leader of the Occupy movement in 2012 and later ran for Charlotte City Council. “It’s served really well...A lot of people consider it a special place.”

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Vietnam war veterans sit in their camp in Marshall Park while Occupy protester Harris snoozes on the ground during the 2012 Democratic National Convention Occupy movement. JEFF WILLHELM jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

The 5.5-acre park is set to be redeveloped and replaced with a smaller park just over a third of its size. Mecklenburg County is in talks with a development group called BK Partners to sell the park plus 12 surounding acres for $33.7 million, a deal that’s expected to be finalized in the coming months. BK Partners, led by Peebles Corp., Stantec and Charlotte-based Conformity Corp., plan to build $683 million worth of new development, including 1,070 new apartments, 178 condominiums, two hotels, and 680,000 square feet of office space, along with shops and restaurants.

That’s got people wondering: Where will protesters rally when Marshall Park is no longer an option?

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A large crowd holds up signs at a 2009 Tea Party rally at Marshall Park. DIEDRA LAIRD Staff Photographer

Tom Low, a Charlotte-based architect and urban planner, said that Marshall Park provided a sense of place in an era of urban renewal and redevelopment in uptown Charlotte that saw most of Second Ward – formerly a predominantly black neighborhood called Brooklyn – demolished.

“Back in the era of rampant suburban sprawl, when downtowns were all dead and people complained there was no sense of space,” Low said, “That was kind of the test: When the revolution happens, does everyone know where to go?”

“In many cities, they were missing,” said Low.

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Anaheim James (left) from California and Charlotte Gardner (right) have a friendly political discussion in Marshall Park in 2012 during the Democratic National Convention and the Occupy movement. JEFF WILLHELM jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

4 acresFirst Ward Park

5.5 acresSecond Ward, Marshall Park

5.4 acresThird Ward, Romare Bearden Park

3 acresFourth Ward Park

BK Partners didn’t respond to a question for more information about the park. The proposed construction timeline calls for several years of building in Second Ward, with the project running through the mid-2020s.

Before the 1970s, the old Charlotte post office – now the federal courthouse uptown – was a frequent site of rallies, according to Observer archives. In 1968, for example, about 300 Johnson C. Smith students burned then-S.C. Gov. Robert McNair in effigy on the lawn there to protest an incident in Orangeburg, where three S.C. State University students were killed.

David Walters, a Charlotte urban design and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, pointed to the Women’s March in January as a possible model for future Charlotte protests. That march started in First Ward Park, where 10,000 people gathered to walk down Tryon Street to Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward.

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Venus Betancourt, 9, second from right, hands out American flags to people gathered at Marshall Park on Monday as part of a protest against immigration policies. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“I think we’ll see more of that as First Ward Park becomes more fixed in people’s minds,” said Walters. The park opened in 2015, and Walters predicted that its location adjacent to a light rail stop will lead to it becoming a popular gathering spot for rallies.

“As development builds up around First Ward Park, that will become a very useful starting point,” said Walters.

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He also predicted that in several years, the new, 1.77-acre park in Second Ward will still prove to be a useful gathering point for some rallies. A crowd of 250, the estimated size of Monday’s immigration march, would fill such a space much better, which carries an added benefit for organizers, Walters said: “It would end up looking much more impressive if a smaller space is packed.”

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Attendees line up to sign a pledge of peace at the end of “Peace in the Park: United Against Violence, from Ferguson to Paris to Chapel Hill” in Marshall Park in 2015. David T. Foster, III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Zytkow predicted that the plaza and public spaces around the uptown Government Center and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police headquarters will become frequent focal points.

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Protesters gather in Marshall Park after September’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“The gathering point will be around the government center,” predicted Zytkow. Still, he said, losing Marshall Park will be a blow to the city’s activist community.

“A lot of people will be sad to see it go,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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